Grand Magazine, Jan 1918, pp. 363-370.
by Rafael Sabatini
For an hour Professor Kauffmann had been deep in the slumber that is common alike to just and unjust provided that physical conditions are healthy, when he was aroused, first subconsciously, then consciously, by the loud insistent trilling of the electric bell.
Professor Kauffmann sat up in bed, switched on the light, and verified that it was ten minutes past two. A little while he sat quite still, an oddly intent alertness in the grey eyes that looked so very light by contrast with his swarthy black-bearded face and the black hair, cut en brosse, that rose stiffly above it. At last, moving leisurely, he left the bed, and from a chair-back near at hand he took up a heavy quilted dressing-gown. He was a tall, active man of about forty, who did not look as if he were an easy prey to fear. Yet he trembled a little as he put on that garment. But then the night was cold, for the month was DecemberDecember of that fateful year 1914. From a small table near the bed he picked up a life-preserver, a slight weapon of lead and whipcord, and he thrust it together with the hand that held it into the roomy pocket of his gown.
Thenthe bell still ringinghe left his bedroom, passed down the heavily-carpeted stairs of that choicely appointed little house in Mayfair, and went to open the door. As it swung back, the light from the hall behind the professor fell upon a slim pale young gentleman in a fur-lined coat over evening clothes.
Professor Kauffmann's relief showed itself a moment, to give place almost at once to surprise and irritation.
"Elphinstone!" he exclaimed. "What the devil…? Do you realise that it is after two o'clock?"
His English was so fluent and colloquial that he might easily have passed for an Englishman. It was only occasionally that a too guttural note proclaimed his real origin.
The young gentleman lounged in without waiting to be invited.
"Awfully sorry, Kauff, to drag you out of bed. But I never imagined you would answer the bell yourself."
The professor grunted, and closed the door. "I am all alone in the house. My man is away ill," he explained. And he added without cordiality"Come along in. There may still be a fire in the study."
He led the way upstairs, opened a door, touched a switch, and lighted up a spacious lofty room, the air of which was pleasantly warm and tobacco-laden. In the fireplace the remains of a fire still smouldered under an ashen crust. The professor went to stir it into life, and as he passed the massive writing-table that occupied the middle of the room he put down the life-preserver which the event had proved to be unnecessary.
Elphinstone removed his opera hat and loosened his heavy coat. His hands trembled a little. He was very pale and rather breathless. Uneasiness was stamped upon his weak face and haunted the restless eyes that took stock of the room, from the gleaming bookcases flanking a blank-faced mahogany press to the heavy purple curtains masking the French windows of the balcony above the porch.
"I'm a dreadful nuisance, Kauff, I know," he was apologising. "But I certainly shouldn't have knocked you up at this time of night if the matter hadn't been urgent." He paused nervously, to add a moment later"I'm in trouble rather."
Kauffmann came upright again and looked round calmly, still grasping the poker. "Have a drink," he invited, and pointed to a side-table and a tray bearing decanters, glasses, and a syphon.
The visitor crossed, poured himself a half-tumbler of whiskey, squirted a tablespoonful of soda into it, and gulped it down.
The professor's light eyes watched him inscrutably.
"Been playing bridge again, I suppose," he hazarded. "I've told you before that you ought to give it up. You know that you're not lucky, and everybody else knows that you can't play. You haven't the temperament."
"Oh, shut up," was the peevish answer. "It isn't bridge this time."
Elphinstone flung himself into the padded chair at the writing-table and looked across it at his host. "As a matter of fact, it isn't chiefly about myself that I'm troubled. It's about you."
"About me? Oh! What about me?"
Watching the man's calm assurance Elphinstone's lip curled in a deprecatory smile. He half shrugged.
"What do you suppose? Do you think a man can go on behaving as you do in such times as thesewith the country excited about spies?"
Very quietly the professor put down the poker. In silence he crossed the room, and came to lean upon the writing-table, facing Elphinstone at close quarters.
"I don't know what you mean," he said in a very level voice.
"Oh, yes, you do. I mean that your damned mysterious ways of life have brought you under the notice of the Home Office. I don't know whether there's occasion for it or not, and I don't want to know. I've got troubles enough of my own. But you've behaved rather decently to me, Kauff, and…well, there it is. I thought you'd like to know that you're being watched."
"You thought I'd like to know it?" Kauffmann smiled. "Of course it gives me the liveliest pleasure. And who is watching me?"
"The Government, of course. Have you ever heard of Scott-Drummond?"
The light eyes flickered, and a keen ear might have detected the faintest change in the voice that asked"Scott-Drummond? Do you mean Scott-Drummond of the Intelligence?"
"Do I mean…? What other Scott-Drummond should I mean? What other Scott-Drummond is there?"
"Ha!" Kauffmann stood upright again, his hands in the pockets of his dressing-gown. "I know of himyes," he answered easily. "What about him?"
"I have good reason to believe that he is in charge of your case. He is having you shadowedor whatever they call it. That's what I came to tell you, so that you may take your precautions."
The professor laughed outright, a thought too heartily perhaps.
"That's very kind of you, Elphinstonevery kind. But what precautions need I take? Good Heavens, if Scott-Drummond chooses to waste his time over my affairs, the more fool he. Have another drink?"
But Elphinstone ignored the invitation. His weak mouth was sullen, and it was an impatient hand that thrust back the rumpled fair hair from his brow. "It's not very generous of you to pretend that my warning is of no value," he complained. "I don't suppose they'd suspect you without good reason. And I can tell you that I've come here at considerable risk to myself."
The professor smiled at him tolerantly as one smiles at a foolish child.
"You really believe that, do you? Well, well!" He sat on the edge of the writing-table. "Tell me, anyhow: Where did you pick up this priceless piece of gossip?"
"It's more than gossip. I happened to overhear something from a talkative young under-secretary at Flynn's this evening. And from what he said I should clear the country quick if I were you, Kauff. That's all."
"Bah! You've stumbled on a mare's nest."
"You know best, of course." There was vexation in the thin voice. "But at least you'll admit that I've acted as a friend to youthat I've taken a good deal of risk in coming here."
"Not much risk, really," laughed the professor. "Still you are very kind, and I am grateful to you for your friendly intentions."
"Oh, that's all right. I think I'll be going." He rose slowly. The uneasiness that had marked his manner throughout became more manifest. "That's all right," he repeated, faltering. Then he paused. "There's another matter I wanted to talk to you about," he said. And then, speaking quickly, like a man who, resolved, takes things at the rush"Fact is, I am in a bit of a mess," he confessed. "I absolutely must have a hundred pounds by morning. Do you think you could…I mean, I should be most awfully grateful to you if you would…"
He left the sentence there, glancing self-consciously at his host.
Kauffmann's eyes considered the weedy degenerate with frank contempt. He even laughed shortly, through closed lips.
"I thought we should come to that sooner or later," said he.
Elphinstone made a movement of indignant protest. His cheeks flushed faintly.
"You don't suppose," he cried, "that I am asking you to pay me for the information I have…"
"Are you quite sure," Kauffmann cut in, "that you didn't manufacture the information for the express purpose of placing me in your debt?"
"Are you quite sure," the other continued, his light eyes almost hypnotic in their steady glance, "that you are not simply making capital out of silly suspicions of your own, and that this story about Scott-Drummond is not a pure fabrication?"
"What do you take me for?" was the resentful question.
"For a young gentleman who plays bridge for stakes far beyond his means, who loses persistently, and who is reduced by his losses to perpetual borrowing."
The flush deepened in Elphinstone's cheeks; then it ebbed again, leaving them paler than ever. With a great show of dignity he buttoned his coat and reached for his hat. "It's no use being angry with you…" he was beginning.
"No use at all," Kauffmann agreed.
Elphinstone shrugged, put on his hat, and turned to go. But his need was greater than his pride. He paused again.
"Kauffmann," he said seriously, "I only wish for your own sake that I could confess that you are right. But I haven't said a word that isn't absolutely true. From what I overheard I'll lay fifty to one that if you remain in England until to-morrow night you will spend it in prison."
"Don't be a fool." There was a note of irritation creeping into the voice that hitherto had been so smooth. "A man can't be arrested in this country without some sort of evidence against him, and there's not a scrap of evidence against me; not a scrap."
"If Scott-Drummond makes it his business to find evidence that you are in the pay of Germanynaturalised British subject though you may behe'll find it."
"Not if it doesn't exist; and it doesn't exist; it can't exist. I tell you," the professor added vehemently, "that I am not in the pay of Germany. In fact, you would be insulting me if you weren't boring me, and after all you're obviously only half sober. It's very late, Elphinstone, and I want to go to bed."
"All right," was the sullen answer. "I am going."
But it was one thing to announce the resolve, and another to find the courage to carry it out. Far, indeed, from doing so, Elphinstone broke down utterly. Quite suddenly the lingering remains of reserve fell from him.
"Kauff, old man," he exclaimed desperately, "I'm in the very devil of a mess. If I don't get a hundred pounds before morning I don't know what will happen."
"Pooh! Creditors can wait."
"It isn't creditorsnot an ordinary creditor. It…it's a case of borrowed money."
"As one who has frequently lent, I confess I don't perceive the difference."
Hoping to move him, Elphinstone was driven to make a full and humiliating confession. "This money was borrowed without asking permission. If I don't put it back before it is discovered it will look like…Oh, you know what it will look like. I s hall be ruined. I don't know what'll happen to me. Kauff, for God's sake…"
But the professor remained entirely unmoved, unless it were to a deeper contempt.
"Do you know how much money you owe me already?" he asked coldly. "Do you realise that it amounts to close upon a thousand pounds?"
"I know. But I shall be able to pay you back very shortly."
There was a whine in the pleading voice.
"I am glad to hear it. But until you do I'm afraid I can't help you any further."
"Not after what I've told you?"
Elphinstone was overcome with horrified amazement.
"It's no use, my boy. You must get it from someone else. I can't afford it at the moment."
Elphinstone's lips tightened. His weak face became ghastly.
"You absolutely refuse me, then?"
"Sorry, of course." The professor's blandness savoured of contempt. "But I can't afford it."
"You can't afford it?" Elphinstone looked at him, and sneered. At bay, his manner assumed a certain truculence. "What about all this German gold you are receiving?"
The professor eyed him stonily a moment. Then"Drop that, Elphinstone," he said shortly. "It won't pay you."
"Won't it?" Elphinstone's angry excitement was rising; his voice grew shriller. "I am not so sure. You think I am a fool, Kauffmann. If I've kept my mouth shut it's because you've been kind to me and helped me when I was in trouble. But it doesn't follow that I've kept my eyes shut, too. I know more than you think. I could tell Scott-Drummond something that would…"
And then Kauffmann became really angry.
"Get out of my house," he ordered. "Do you think I am the man to submit to blackmail? Get out at once."
The tall vigorous figure and grim swarthy face became oddly menacing. Elphinstone was scared.
"Wait a minute, Kauffmann." He was cringing again. "I didn't mean it. I really didn't. I am up against it. I…"
"I don't care whether you meant it or not. Go to Scott-Drummond and tell him anything you like. But don't forget that he may have some questions to ask you. Don't forget that it will come out that you have had about a thousand pounds from me, and that a jury of your countrymen will certainly want to know what it was for."
"What it was for?" Elphinstone stared in amazement. "I never intended…"
"No. But I did," Kauffmann answered dryly. "I don't pay a thousand pounds to seal a man's lips without taking good care to see that the seal is going to hold. My dear Elphinstone, when you realise that you are a fool you will have taken the first great step towards wisdom. Meanwhile, I have had enough of you. Get out before I throw you out."
"For God's sake, Kauffmann…" Elphinstone was beginning desperately.
Kauffmann advanced upon him round the table. "Get out, I tell you." He seized the young man by the shoulders to thrust him towards the door. But Elphinstone squirmed and twisted in his grasp.
"Take your hands off me, you damned German spy!" he cried, thoroughly enraged at this indignity. He wrenched himself from those compelling hands and sprang away, round the table. With an oath Kauffmann turned to follow him; and then the thing happened.
By purest chance Elphinstone's hand had found the wicked little life-preserver that lay among the professor's papers. Fierce now as a cornered rat he snatched it up, and in his blind unreflecting fury brought it down upon the head of his aggressor.
There was an ominous squelching crack. Kauffmann's hands were jerked violently up to the level of his shoulders with the mechanical action of an automaton, and he collapsed in a heap at Elphinstone's feet.
Standing over him, still clutching the weapon, Elphinstone apostrophised the fallen man, breathlessly, almost hysterically.
"That will teach you better manners, you dirty spy. That will teach you to keep your hands to yourself. If you thought I was going to let myself be man-handled by a…"
He broke off. There was something ominous about the utter stillness of the body and the red viscous fluid slowly oozing from his head and spreading to the Persian carpet.
"Kauffmann!" His voice shrilled up and cracked. "Kauffmann!"
In shuddering, slobbering terror he went down beside the professor, and shook him.
The body sank limply down again as Elphinstone relaxed his grip of it and it lay still and unresponsive as before. A sudden horrible realisation was borne in upon the young man's senses. With a whimpering sound he shrank back, still kneeling. "Oh my God!" he gasped, and covered his white face with trembling hands.
The next moment he almost screamed aloud, for somewhere in the room behind him somethingsomeonehad moved. He whipped round in a frenzy of terror.
The heavy curtains masking the French windows had parted, and on the near side of them stood now a slight man in a shabby suit of tweeds, a faded scarf round his neck, an old tweed cap on his head. He had a keen, hungry-looking hatchet face and dark eyes which were considering Elphinstone and his work with almost inhuman emotionlessness.
For a long moment they stared at each other in silence. Then the newcomer spoke, his voice so quiet and self-contained as to sound almost mocking.
"Well?" he asked. "What are you going to do about it?"
Elphinstone sprang up. "Who are you?" he asked mechanically.
"Just a burglar," said the other, indicating the window behind him, from which a square of glass had been cut.
The burglar let the curtains fall back into place, and moved forward soundlessly. "You needn't be so superior," said he. "I'm not a murderer, anyhow."
"A murd…! My God! He's not…he can't be dead!"
"Not if his head is made of cast iron."
There was something almost revolting in the cynicism with which the newcomer accepted the fact. He knelt beside the professor, and made a swift examination.
"Dead as mutton," he pronounced nonchalantly. "You've smashed his skull."
Elphinstone sank limply against the desk, and clutched it to steady himself. Breath seemed to fail him.
"I didn't mean it," he whimpered. "I swear I didn't. I…I did it in self-defence. You must have seen how it happened. It was an accident."
"Oh, I saw how it happened all right," the other answered, rising. "But you don't suppose my evidence would help either of us very much. This may be very nasty for you."
The burglar met the stare of the young man's dilating eyes, and saw purpose suddenly kindle in them, saw the hand that still held the life-preserver tighten its grip. But he was swifter of purpose and action than Elphinstone, and on the instant the latter found himself contemplating the nozzle of a pistol.
"Drop that weapon! Drop it at once," the burglar commanded, and there was steel in the voice that had been so languid.
Elphinstone's nerveless hand let fall the life-preserver.
"You didn't think…"
"No. But you might have been tempted, and one broken skull is enough in one evening." He slipped his pistol back into his pocket. "Well?" he asked again. "Have you made up your mind what you're going to do about it?"
"Do about it?" Elphinstone echoed dully. There was a gleam of perspiration on his brow. "You'll not give me away," he was beginning to plead, then suddenly he realised the situation as it affected the other, and from that derived a confidence that rendered him aggressive. "You daren't," he announced. "It would look pretty black against you, my friend. If anyone were to find us now, which way do you think appearances would point? Who's to say that it wasn't you who killed him?"
"No oneunless you do."
"Exactly," said Elphinstone, and he almost sneered. He had fancied that the burglar winced under that last question of his, as well he might. Far from being disastrous, it began to be clear to him that the advent of the thief was providential; that he, himself, was entirely master of the situation. In this comforting persuasion he recovered his nerve almost as swiftly as he had lost it.
"You had better not attempt to keep me here, or it may be the worse for you. You can get away as you came, and there's nothing to prevent you taking whatever you came for. There's no one in the house. His man is away ill."
"I know. I informed myself of that before I came."
"Very well, then. He's got a collection of jewels in there that is worth a fortune," and Elphinstone pointed to the blind face of the mahogany press standing between the bookcases.
"I know," said the burglar again. "That's what I came for."
"Then let me get out of this, and you can help yourself."
"Who's keeping you?" the other asked him in that uncannily cool, matter-of-fact voice of his. "I'm certainly not. In your place I should have cleared already. So long as you don't interfere with my job I don't care whether you go or stay."
He swung round with that, crossed to the press, turned the key, and threw open the double doors, revealing a safe immediately behind them. He knelt down to examine the lock. Then from one of his pockets he took a chamois-skin bundle. He unrolled it and placed it on the floor beside him, displaying an array of bright steel implements. From another pocket he took a bunch of skeleton keys, and proceeded to make a selection.
For a moment, Elphinstone stood watching the man's cool, expert address in amazement. At last he roused himself, shuddered again as his eye fell upon that thing on the floor, and he sidled away towards the door.
"I think I'll be going," he said. With his hand on the knob he checked. "Someone may have seen me come in, and may see me going out again."
"That'll be all right," said the burglar, without turning. "They'll know nothing about this until morning." By a jerk of the thumb over his shoulder he indicated the body. "And it'll look like burglary by then. It'll look uncommonly like burglary by the time I'm through. You needn't make a secret of having visited him. No one can say that this didn't happen after you had left. It will certainly look like it. You're quite safe. Good night!"
"Ah!" said Elphinstone, and on that he went out.
To his terrified, conscience-stricken imagination the night seemed alive with watching eyes. He dared not shut the front door of that house lest the bang should draw attention to his departure. Leaving it ajar, he slunk fearfully away, and as he went his panic so grew upon him that by the time he had turned the corner into Piccadilly he was persuaded that by leaving as he had done he had determined his own doom, walked into some trap unperceived by himself but quite clear to that incredibly cool burglar whom he had left behind. Already he saw himself arraigned and sentenced for the murder of Kauffmann. A sick giddiness of terror overtook him; his teeth chattered and his legs so trembled that he was scarcely able to walk. And then suddenly, upon the utter stillness of the night, rang a loud metallic sound that brought him shuddering to a standstill. It was the ring of a police inspector's baton, striking the pavement to call the constable of the beat.
For a moment Elphinstone's disordered mind connected the summons with himself and the thing he had left behind him. Then inspiration flashed upon his mind. There was a clear course that by definitely fastening the guilt elsewhere would make him absolutely safe. That burglar must be caught in the act by the police.
He ran forward in the direction whence the sound had reached him, and a moment later he was breathlessly delivering himself to a stalwart inspector.
"…Over there, in Park Gardens," he heard himself saying, "a house is being burgled. I saw a man entering a window from the balcony over the porch."
Two constables joined them as he was speaking. There was a brief exchange of question and answer, and then the four of them went back together at the double. Elphinstone pointed out the house, and the inspector was intrigued to find the door ajar.
"Looks as if we were too late already," he commented, and ordering his men to go up with Elphinstone, himself remained there to keep an eye upon the street.
They went softly upstairs to the study, burst into it and surprised the burglar still at his work. The safe was standing open, and there was a litter of its contents on the floor; among these were half-a-dozen small showcases containing the collection of jewels of which Kauffmann had been so proud. One of the constables shouted to the inspector below before the pair of them sprang at the burglar and overpowered him. Even as they did so, and the man offered no resistance, Elphinstone moving round the table almost fell over the professor's body.
The policemen heard his outcry; they saw him reel back, appalled. He was really acting very well.
"Look here!" he called to them, and dropped on his knees beside the dead man. "Lord! He's dead! Dead!" He looked up at them blankly. "We're too late," he said.
"We've got the murderer, anyhow," he was gruffly answered by one of the constables, who, leaving the handcuffed man in the care of his colleague, came round himself to view the body at closer quarters.
Elphinstone looked at the burglar, and the burglar's eyes met the glance. The fellow appeared to have lost none of his cool masterfulness and none of his cynicism, for as his eyes met Elphinstone's, his lip curled in contempt of the fellow who had made him a defenceless scapegoat.
"I had the idea," he said without resentment, "that this was what you would do."
And then the inspector came in. "What's this?" he asked as he entered.
"Murder," cried Elphinstone stridently, "that's what it isrobbery and murder. And there's the murderer. Caught absolutely red-handed. Caught in the very act."
"In the act of burglingnot murdering," was all the prisoner said, quite gently.
The inspector stooped over the body. He met the eye of the constable who had been making an examination, and the subordinate nodded with ominous eloquence.
"A clear case," said the inspector. "Fetch him along, and…"
The inspector looked full at the burglar, and quite suddenly he checked, stiffened, and stood to attention.
"Beg pardon, sir," said he with a quite extraordinary deference. "Didn't know as how it was you. What's this, sir?" indicating the body. "Had an accident?"
"No. It's murder all right as that fellow says, and he should know, for he's the murderer. It was he who killed Professor Kauffmann. I saw the whole thing from behind those curtains. I gave him his chance to get away. Very wrong of me, of course; but I didn't want any publicity on my own methods. Besides," he added slyly, "I thought it very likely he would come back with the police, and so save me all trouble. He would naturally imagine that a burglar could have nothing to say in his own defence."
"I see, Mr. Scott-Drummond. Very good sir," was the inspector's respectful answer, and he came forward with quick concern to remove the handcuffs from the prisoner.
It was then that Elphinstone roused himself at last from his horrified amazement.
"Scott-Drummond! Scott-Drummond!" he repeated, foolishly.
The burglar stooped to pick up a slender case of japanned tin, which he had dropped when the constables seized him. The lid had been wrenched off and the edges of a sheaf of blue tracing papers protruded.
"We had good reason," he said, "to suspect Professor Kauffmann of being an agent of the German Government, and I came to get hold of evidence. I've found what I was looking formore even than I expectedso I'll be going."
He glanced across at the stricken Elphinstone standing limply between the two constables.
"You'd better take that fellow to Vine Street," he said quietly. "I'll forward my report. Good night, inspector."